Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical Introduction by Clay MacCauley (1843–1925)

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical Introduction by Clay MacCauley (1843–1925)

By Japanese Literature

CIVILIZATION in Japan bears date from a time much more recent than that generally ascribed to it. The uncritical writers who first made Japan known to Western peoples accepted the historical traditions treasured by the Japanese as a record of fact. In the popular imaginings of the West, consequently, Japan is a land in which for at least twenty-five centuries an organized society, under a monarchy of unbroken descent, possessed of a relatively high though unique culture in the sciences and arts, has had place and development. But during the last twenty years, competent students have discovered that Japanese civilization is comparatively modern. They cannot carry its authentic history much farther back than about halfway over the course that has been usually allowed for it. No reliance can be placed upon any date or report in Japanese tradition prior to near the opening of the fifth Christian century. Undoubtedly there was, as in all other lands, some basis for long-established tradition; but the glimpses of Japan and its people obtained through the Chinese and Korean annals of the early Christian centuries disclose the inhabitants of these islands, not with an organized State and society, peaceful, prosperous, and learned, but as segregated into clans or tribes practically barbarous and wholly illiterate; the clan occupying the peninsula east of the present cities of Kyōto and Ōsaka having then become leader and prospective sovereign. Certainly before the third Christian century was well advanced there was no knowledge whatever of letters in Japan; and certainly too, for a long time after the art of writing had been brought into the country there was no popular use or knowledge of the art.

I.—Historical Sketch

The knowledge of letters was in all probability introduced into Japan by Korean immigrants. Their language and writing were Chinese. In the fourth century there may have been among the Japanese some learners of this new knowledge. The Japanese claim positively that in the fifth century their national traditions, hitherto transmitted orally, were written down by adepts in the new art. But whatever may be true of the earlier centuries, it is perfectly clear that in the first half of the sixth century many scholars came to these islands from the continent, and were given positions of trust in the administration of the dominant government in Yamato; and that from the year 552 A.D., with the acceptance of Buddhism by those highest in authority, and the full inflow of Chinese influence upon society, literature in Japan began to have permanent place and power.

But literature in Japan and Japanese literature are two quite different things. They are as unlike as the Latin writings of mediæval Germany and the German writings of later times. Japanese literature does not date from the notable acquisition by the Japanese of a knowledge of letters. Not with that, nor for a long time afterwards, was any serious attempt made among them to express in writing the language of the people. In all probability this was not done until towards the end of the seventh century. The higher officials of State and of the Church—the new Buddhism—had a monopoly of learning; and their writings prior to the eighth century were, so far as is known, wholly Chinese in word and in form. But as the eighth century opened, a medium for the production of a Japanese literature was receiving shape. A kind of script devised from Chinese ideographs for the purpose of expressing Japanese speech was coming into use: that is, Chinese characters were being written for the sake of their phonetic values; their sounds, not their meanings, reproducing Japanese words and sentences. In this so-called manyokana the first material embodied was in all probability that for which verbatim transliteration was necessary, such as ancient prayers and songs. With this phonetic writing a literature distinctively Japanese was made possible, and had its beginnings.

The earliest Japanese literary product now existing is a marvelous summary of treasured tradition, called the ‘Kojiki’ or ‘Record of Old Things,’ written by imperial command in the year 712. The ‘Kojiki’ is a professed history of creation, of the Divine genesis of the imperial family of Japan, and of the career of this “people of the gods” down into the early part of the century preceding its composition. To the student of Japanese literature the ‘Kojiki’ is especially valuable, because in it are preserved the oldest known products of the purely literary impulses of the Japanese. Long before the Japanese could write, they could sing; and there is good reason to accept the songs given in the ‘Kojiki’ as heritages from the much farther past.

Within nine years after the appearance of the ‘Kojiki,’ another compilation of national tradition was made, bringing the story of the nation down to the close of the seventh century. This work (year 720) is called ‘Nihongi’ or ‘Japanese Records.’ But it is almost wholly Chinese in language and in construction. Its special value, considered as part of Japanese literature, lies in its preservation of some old Japanese verse.

The chief depository, however, of Japanese literature in its beginnings is the treasury of poems (completed about 760) gathered during the Nara Era,—the ‘Manyōshū’ or ‘Collection of Myriad Leaves.’ In these books the choicest utterances in Japanese verse then existing were garnered. They remain now an invaluable memorial of the intellectual awakening that followed Japan’s first historic intercourse with Korea and China.

But the manyokana, as a means for Japanese literary expression, was altogether too cumbersome and difficult for continued and enlarged use. Consequently, as writing in the language of the people increased, the ideographs that had been utilized for phonetic purposes became simpler and more conventional. At about the time the ‘Manyōshū’ was finished, from among these ideographs two syllabaries, the katakana (757), and the hiragana (834), were formed, and a free writing of the Japanese language at last became possible. These syllabaries were gradually extended in use, and at the close of the ninth century gained honored recognition as the medium for embodying Japanese speech by their adoption in the writing of the preface to, and in the transcription of, a new collection of poems made under imperial order,—the ‘Kokinshū’ or ‘Ancient and Modern Songs’ (905). These poems show at its full fruition whatever poetic excellence the Japanese people have gained. They are to-day the most studied and most quoted of all the many gatherings from Japanese song.

Japanese literature, having received a vehicle adequate to its expression, and indorsement by the highest authority, with the opening of the ninth century entered upon an era lasting for nearly four hundred years; an era in which, with the co-operation of the general maturing culture of the empire, it passed through what is now known as its Classic Age. During these four centuries the capital of the empire lost the nomadic character it had had from time immemorial. With the removal of the imperial family from Nara in 794, the capital became fixed in Kyōto, to stay there for the next eleven hundred years. Through these four centuries the national development was for the most part serene. The ruling classes entered upon a career of high culture, refinement, and elegance of life, that passed however in the end into an excess of luxury, debilitating effeminacy, and dissipation. During the best part of these memorable centuries Japanese literature as belles-lettres culminated; leaving to after times, even to the present day, models for pure Japanese diction. The court nobles of the eleventh and twelfth centuries had abundant leisure for the culture of letters, and they devoted their time to that, and to the pursuit of whatever other refined or luxurious pleasures imagination could devise. For instance, among the many notable intellectual dissipations of the age were reunions at daybreak among the spring flowers, and boat rides during autumnal moonlighted nights, by aristocratic devotees of music and verse who vied with one another in exhibits of their skill with these arts. The culture of literature in the Chinese language never wholly ceased; but from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries the creation of a literature in the language of the people was the chief pastime of the official and aristocratic Japanese. Before the rise of the Shōgunate at the close of the twelfth century, no less than seven great compilations of the poetry of the times were made.

Especially notable among the works of this classic age are the prose writings. Critics call attention first to the diary of a famous poet, Tsurayuki: notes of a journey he made in 935, from Tosa where he was governor, to Kyōto the capital. This diary, the ‘Tosa Nikki,’ is said to be not only a simple and charming story of travel, but to be the best extant embodiment of uncontaminated Japanese speech. Then there remain from the same epoch many “romances” or “tales,” monogatari, now much studied and valued for their linguistic excellences. Probably the earliest among them, the ‘Taketori Monogatari’ or ‘Story of a Bamboo Cutter’ (850–950), which tells of the fortunes of a Moon maiden exiled for a while in this world, is said to have, for purity of thought and language, no rival in Japanese or Chinese fiction. The ‘Ise Monogatari’ or ‘Story of Ise’ (850–950) has also admiring critics. Its prose and poetry are both studied as models to-day, its poetry being ranked next to that of the ‘Kokinshū.’ The ‘Sumiyoshi’ and the ‘Yamato Monogatari,’ too (900–1000) must be named as choice tenth-century classics. The culmination of Japanese classic prose, however, as nearly all critics agree, was reached with the writing of the ‘Romance of Prince Genji’ and the ‘Book of the Pillow’: the ‘Genji Monogatari’ (1003–4), and the ‘Makura no Sōshi’ (1000–1050), both appearing early in the eleventh century. They are the work of two ladies of the court, Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon. The ‘Genji’ romance leads all works in Japanese literature in the fluency and grace of its diction; but the ‘Pillow Book’ is said to be matchless in the ease and lightness and general artistic excellence of its literary touch. These works stand as the consummate achievements of the classic age in prose. They mark also the end of this memorable literary epoch. At the close of the twelfth century Japan became a battle-field for civil wars. War and the interests of war became supreme. Learning and letters were gradually relegated to priests, and literature soon ceased to exist. The Chinese language again became the chief vehicle of whatever literary work was done.

From the twelfth century to the rise of the Tokugawa Shōgunate in the seventeenth century, the empire passed through its Middle or “Dark” Age. During these five centuries, although numerous writings for political and religious purposes appeared, but little work of importance for the history of Japanese literature was produced. Some collections of verse may be excepted from this judgment. Two bits of prose writing, the ‘Hōjōki’ (1212?) of Chomei, and the ‘Tsure-zure gusa’ (1345?) of Yoshida Kenkō, have qualities that make them especially noteworthy. The ‘Hōjōki,’—the meditations of a hermit priest in a mountain hut, written near the beginning of the thirteenth century,—simple, fluent, vivacious, and yet forcible in style,—are esteemed as preserving for the language an excellence like that of the ‘Makura no Sōshi.’ And the ‘Tsure zure gusa’ or ‘Weeds of Idleness,’ short essays composed in the fourteenth century, is the last notable example of the form and speech that gave to the classic age its commanding position in the development of pure Japanese literature. The ‘Weeds of Idleness,’ moreover, has the distinction of opening the way for the literary speech that came into full development in the seventeenth century, and has since been the language of the literature of Japan. In these essays, Chinese words were set into Japanese forms of speech without doing violence to Japanese modes of expression. The ‘Tsure-zure gusa’ has thereby the double merit of embodying the highest literary excellence of a past age, and the beginnings of a new linguistic development.

Further, the mediæval centuries are of importance to the literature of Japan from the development in them of a form of musical drama called the Nō no Utai; originating in the ancient sacred dances and temple amusements cared for by the priests,—the only men of letters of the time. These lyric plays are dateless and anonymous, but they have considerable literary worth. Accompanying the severer sacred drama and serving as interludes for them, many comedies, kyōgen, written in the ordinary colloquial of the day, were produced. These comic writings possess small literary but much linguistic value.

The next noteworthy event in Japan’s literary history was the revival, under the early Tokugawa Shōguns, of the study of the ancient imperial records, and of the writings of the classic age. The great first Tokugawa Shōgun, Ieyasu, at the beginning of the seventeenth century subjected and quieted the warring clans of the country. An age of peace, to last for the next two hundred and fifty years, was then entered upon. One of the most important results of the literary revival that accompanied these happy days for the State was the full maturing of a standard language for literature. What Yoshida Kenkō had begun in ‘Tsure-zure gusa’—the amalgamation of a Chinese vocabulary with purely Japanese forms of speech—was well carried forward by the Mito school of historians towards the opening of the eighteenth century (the “Age of Genroku,” 1688–1703); and as the century advanced, was perfected by the accomplished critics, novelists, and dramatists of the times. To such critics as Keichiu (1640–1701), Mabuchi (1700–1769), Motoori (1730–1800), and Hirata (1776–1843), Japanese literature is indebted for elaborate critical commentaries upon the ‘Kojiki,’ the ‘Manyōshū,’ and the ancient Shintō ritual; and from them the writers of after days received models in composition and style. The novelists, especially Bakin (1767–1840), and Ikku (1763–1831), created much-prized works in fiction; Bakin, master of a style almost classical in quality, and Ikku, notwithstanding an objectionable coarseness of subjects, displaying great literary skill. In the Tokugawa period appeared, among many others, two remarkable dramatists: Takeda Izumo (1690–1756), and Chikamatsu Monzayemon (1652–1724),—the latter showing such minute analysis of the motives of human character and action that he has been called the Japanese Shakespeare.

With mention of the work of these writers this mere sketch of the course of Japanese literature may close. Within the last half-century the life of the Japanese people as a whole has been subjected to a radical revolution. This secluded nation has opened its borders to free intercourse with the rest of the world. The recent history of Japanese literature, interesting though it be, is yet in largest measure but a story of the importation and adaptation of Western thought to Japanese uses. For present purposes it need not come under consideration.

We may take a glance, in passing, at the literature of Japan in general considered. As a whole, it has been for the greater part Chinese in language and script. As distinctly Japanese, this literature has had in fact only one period of dominance and high excellence,—that lying between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries. The eighteenth-century literary revival was not a return to either the kana writing or to the native language of the classics; it was at the best an extension of the Chinese vocabulary, and the amalgamation of Chinese ideographs with the kana script in sentences that were Japanese in idiom and in construction. The Japanese literature of modern times has consequently been a composite of Chinese and Japanese words and writing. Chinese literature as affected by Japanese writers is at the present day rapidly decreasing in mass and in value.

Looked at as literature only, literature in Japan is exceedingly voluminous. It exists as extensive libraries of history, State records, and private historical digests; as regulations of court ceremonial; as codifications and commentaries upon civil and other law; as statements and expositions of doctrine and ritual for Shintō and Buddhism in religion, and of the ethics of Confucianism; as treatises upon Chinese philosophies; as biographies, records of travel, and works in fiction; as disquisitions on art; as general encyclopædias of topography, zoölogy, botany, and other departments of natural phenomena; as dramatic works; as records of folk-lore; and though last, by no means the least in mass, as poetry and comment upon the poems. The art of printing, as block-printing, was brought to Japan as early as the eighth century. Printing from movable types was known at the end of the fourteenth century. In the seventeenth century the use of the press became general, and large quantities of the manuscripts hoarded for centuries reappeared as printed books, increasing in numbers until in recent times they have become one of the common possessions of the people throughout the empire.

II.—Content and Value

TURNING now from the history of Japanese literature, let us look for a moment at its content. How shall we characterize this? What is its value?

At the outset it must be acknowledged that in general the literature of Japan does not abound in matter of direct or living interest to Western readers. It had its springs in conditions and circumstances very different from those of the literature of the Occident. Its references to custom, to historic events, to personages and places of tradition, introduce the European and American reader into an environment almost wholly unfamiliar. Its motives for action, its praise and censure of conduct, are governed by standards which in many ways are unlike those dominant in the life of far-away peoples. Then its modes of expression have scarcely anything in common with the ways of speech to which the mind of the West has become habituated, and which the Western mind enjoys. In fact, the Occidental reader, generally speaking, has neither the requisite mental habit and intelligence, nor the peculiar mood, needed for an appreciative interest in the literature of the Japanese.

It would be injustice however to much that is of real value, to turn this judgment into a sweeping condemnation. Japanese literature is strange and alien; it is to the dweller in the West, as a rule, dull and unmeaning; its speech is painstakingly minute, dwelling upon details that in European speech are passed with hardly a touch,—the verboseness dragging its way through sentences that seem at times interminable. And then, in much that must be accepted as literature proper, as the belles-lettres of the Japanese, there is a free display of thought and act forbidden in recent centuries by the moral standard of the approved literature of the West. But this literature holds the records of a peculiar and extensive mythology and folk-lore; it shows the origin and development of a unique system of government; it exhibits the elaboration of a social order of remarkable stability, and the operation of society under a system of ceremonial etiquette in the highest degree complex and refined. In this literature the ethnologist, the psychologist, the student of comparative religion, the art critic, the historian, and often the general reader, can find much pleasant entertainment and profitable study. There is in it, notwithstanding a mass of dull, prolix, and profitless matter, a considerable contribution to the world’s means of diversion and stores of knowledge. The reader, it must be said, will look in vain into Japanese literature for intellectual creativeness or invention. The Japanese mind is characteristically neither original nor adventurous. In Japanese history, no philosophy or science has been started or been much advanced. From a remote past the people of this empire have been learners and followers of nations endowed as pioneers and discoverers. Their genius for the most part has lain in the appropriation and refinement of the gains first made by others. Accepting their monarchy as a direct descent of heavenly power into the lower world, the Japanese from ancient times have subordinated themselves to it under the sway of the twin chief virtues of the Confucian ethics, loyalty and filial piety. Under the influence of these principles a social order was developed, marked by a devotion to emperor, lord, parent, and to all superiors in the relations of man with man, that showed a self-abnegation such as has probably never been seen among any other people. Accompanying this universal social systematization was a ceremonial refinement, a graceful complexity of etiquette, developed with consummate excellence, and dominating even the humblest parts of the civil and domestic organism. As results of their social discipline, the Japanese as a people long ago accepted life as they were born to it, without disturbing impatience or restless ambitions; they achieved great contentment with but small means for self-gratification; and they were prepared to yield life itself with a readiness almost unknown among self-assertive peoples. The learning of Japan—that is, the religion really directing the people; Buddhism; the principles and much of the detail of their law; whatever might be classed as science and philosophy—was received from abroad. Among the Japanese these things gained elaboration, and in most of their relations received refinement with the lapse of the centuries. Hardly any of the industries, and we may say none of the fine arts, were originated by this people. The Japanese however have carried such interests, their arts especially, to degrees of excellence that have drawn to them universal admiration. Of all this and of much else, Japanese literature bears good record, and therefore has noteworthy interest and value to the peoples of remote lands.

In one department of letters, however, it may be said that the Japanese have wrought from a beginning, and have produced results that are specifically their own. Their poetry had its origin in a prehistoric age, and it has had a culture down to the present day distinctively individual and unique. Much Chinese poetry has been written in Japan, and by Japanese writers; but unlike prose, Japanese verse has never been subjected to Chinese ways of thought and expression. With but little variation the oldest native song is still the model for Japanese poetry. In form it is an alternation of verses of five and seven syllables (naga uta); in expression it is exceedingly compact and limited. There are a few poems, like the legend of ‘Urashima Taro,’ having some length; but the versification most in favor consists of only three or five of the fixed five and seven syllable measures. The standard model is the tanka, a five-verse composition, containing in all thirty-one syllables; like the most ancient song just referred to, the song of the god Susano-ō, sung at the building of a bridal palace for the gods. “When this Great Deity first built the palace of Suga,” says the ‘Kojiki,’ “clouds rose up thence. Then he made an august song. That song said:—

  • ‘Yakumo tatsu;
  • Izumo yae gaki;
  • Tsuma gomi ni
  • Yae gaki tsukuru:
  • Sono yae gaki wo!’”
  • Or in somewhat free translation:—
  • “Many clouds appear:
  • Eightfold clouds a barrier raise
  • Round the wedded pair.
  • Manifold the clouds stand guard;
  • Oh that eightfold barrier-ward!”
  • In the construction of Japanese verse there are certain special oddities, such as redundant expletives, and phrases called “pillow-words” and “introductions.” These expressions are purely conventional ornaments or euphonisms. Much of the superior merit of this verse-writing depends also upon a serious use of puns and of other word-plays. The subject-matter of the poetry is almost always some simple and serene emotion in reference to person or nature. Its quality is daintiness, and its mood is meditation. Poetic imagination, as known in the West, has no place in Japanese verse; instead, the verse is given over to lyric fancies. It is conventional, suggestive, impressionist, like Japanese painting. It is not a chosen means for sounding and recording the depths of profound spiritual experience. It has never been the vehicle of an epic. Japanese poetry however is well worth study. It is “the one original product of the Japanese mind.”

    It must be said that as a whole, Japanese literature does not take a place among the great achievements of the human intellect. Yet its limitations came almost of necessity. The people of this empire—from time immemorial isolated in the farthest East; dependent for their letters, laws, philosophy, religious faith, ethics, science, industrial and fine art, upon their neighbors of the continent; also hitherto denied by nature the creative or inventive genius—as a matter of course have been unable to go far or to rise to any great height in literary achievement. What they may hereafter do, no one can foretell. To-day they are living in an environment unlike any they have ever before known. Japan is now in intimate intercourse with the whole world. The Japanese people are now appropriating with marvelous speed the civilization of Europe and America. What may be called a world-consciousness and culture is becoming dominant among them. To what heights they may reach, actuated by this power, to what grand goal they may yet move, the future only can show.